Barack Obama made smashing national debut

Barack Obama made smashing national debut
By Salim Muwakkil

July 28, 2004

Barack Obama has arrived. His speech at the Democratic National Convention electrified delegates in attendance and wowed the television audience, as well.

Those of us who know Obama and have watched him mature in the public spotlight were not at all surprised by his smashing national debut. He is the genuine article who literally embodies our multicultural future.

This 42-year-old son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother has captured the public's attention in a way rarely seen in these media-savvy times.

Even conservative pundits were taken by Obama's eloquence and charisma. The speech was "brilliantly well-delivered," said David Brooks, the right-wing New York Times columnist who also does commentary on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Moderate and liberal commentators were even more effusive.

Obama emerged out of Chicago's boisterous mix of black and progressive politics, and there is little doubt that he will make history as just the third black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. He is well educated, with degrees from Columbia University and Harvard -- where he graduated magna cum laude and served as the first black American president of the Harvard Law Review.

From there he set out for Chicago, where he directed a voter-registration and education project in Cook County instead of joining one of the many corporate law firms that lavishly wooed the Harvard grad.

Obama began reconciling his hybrid heritage with American realities and found a sense of belonging within the city's African-American community.

We know much about his inner struggles because he wrote a 1995 book about them entitled "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." The book is a lyrical meditation on race and culture.

In 1993, Obama joined a law firm specializing in civil-rights and voting-rights litigation. In that capacity, he served as general counsel to community health clinics and social service agencies throughout Chicago. He also began teaching constitutional law at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School.

His intelligence and sense of commitment soon called him to politics, and he entered the Illinois state senate in 1997. While there, Obama notched several legislative victories, including sponsoring a racial profiling law that requires police departments to record the race of stopped motorists, and a law requiring that interrogations and confessions in capital cases be videotaped.

Obama also co-sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage, and he was instrumental in expanding Kid Care and Family Care -- the children and family health insurance programs in Illinois.

He was also the first senatorial candidate to forcefully oppose the Bush administration's Iraq invasion and has been in the forefront of the continuing opposition.

Early in his political career, Obama faced considerable opposition from Chicago's substantial black nationalist community. For some, his Harvard pedigree and verbal eloquence cast suspicion on his degree of "blackness." Members of this community wondered if Obama felt as connected to the folks in the "hood" as he did to the educated elite with whom he spent so much of his time.

When he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush for his congressional seat in 2000, the incumbent exploited those suspicions about his racial allegiances. That may be one reason that Obama mentioned in his convention speech that black parents must guard their children against the "slander that says a black with a book is acting white."

But Obama now enjoys widespread support among Chicago's black nationalists. And he didn't do it by pandering to their particular issues or by warping his platform to fit their concerns. He did it by persuading them of his integrity.

Even more, his legislative record during his eight years as the state senator from Illinois' 13th district convinced them that he had the black community's interest at heart, even as he cultivated alliances with other political forces.

With his gifts of eloquence and charisma, Obama is a genuine rising star. His election to the U.S. Senate would instantly catapult him into the top ranks of Democratic leadership. And his message of inclusion, which resonated with authenticity, is one we should all take to heart.

Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of In These Times magazine (, a Chicago-based publication, and a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at